Sadness Takes Center Stage in This Romantic Comedy: A Review of The Apartment (1960)

Figuring out where to start with a review of a film like The Apartment is like trying to figure where exactly you should point your loaded pistol in a suicide attempt. There’s so much to talk about that you could really go anywhere when writing about it, but you may just end up shooting yourself in the knee in the process. I think the best thing to say about it is that despite being 45 years old, the movie never felt dated. Sure, some of the technology may be “ancient” to some current and future viewers, but in terms of humor, it all still works. Wilder creates a wonderful blend of wordplay, extended gags, and clever dialogue in his writing and directing that leaves us with an effectively timeless string of comedy. It doesn’t take a genius to know that when Baxter goes to shave after removing the blade from his razor in the previous scene, that he’s going to forget and try to shave without it, but that punchline doesn’t come until a minute or two after it was set up so that when it does come, you too have forgotten about the blade. In this sense, Wilder denies you the instant gratification of seeing a simple gag play out and instead puts it on hold until you really think that it’s not going to happen, which extends to what he does with the entire movie.

What I mean is that Wilder doesn’t allow his romantic comedy to play out in the way the general audience would like it to: he instead lets a sad tale play out until the very last minute of the film. He breaks just about every generic construct of a romantic comedy throughout the course of the movie, and yet he still manages to make it work. To start, there’s no “love at first sight,” or rather, no mutual love between Fran and Baxter until the end. There’s no embarrassing public display of affection to win over the love interest, but rather Baxter’s embarrassment starts before the beginning of the movie and goes nearly until the end. Him allowing coworkers to use his apartment as a spot for them to cheat on their wives and covering for all them makes him look like a shady, womanizing jerk to all his neighbors. He takes the blame, the responsibility, and the beating for Fran’s suicide attempt, when it should really be the other men in his office. On top of this, C.C. Baxter isn’t really the dreamy leading man you’d expect to see in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t have any excitement in his life, but rather he incites it in others with the use of his home. He’s not muscular or “cool” with any women, in fact, he comes off as really “nerdy” in the sense that he has everything memorized and categorized, and he comes off as more than a bit of a stalker with his complete knowledge of Fran’s background, including her social security number, which he was very proud to mention.

The lack of love, grand gestures, or a hunky leading man is more than enough to throw the idea of this movie being a romantic comedy out the window, and yet the addition of sad romantic pasts, collective loneliness, and a suicidal leading lady might cause people to say that it would not even be allowed to be anywhere close to the genre, but I still think it fits. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this movie, but as I already mentioned, it also has its fair share of wonderful comedy, so what it really boils down to is seeing which side wins in the end, and Wilder isn’t going to make that easy.

While watching the film for the first time, the final five to ten minutes of the move all act as possible false endings to the movie, each one seemingly sadder than the last. First we get the final interaction between Baxter and Sheldrake in which he finally decides to stand up to his boss, and for himself, and quit his job in order to become a “mensch” as Dr. Dreyfuss told him to be. The film could close right there with him entering the elevator and never getting the love he wanted, but finally getting to assert himself and not get walked all over just for an undeserved promotion, but the movie keeps going. We then see Baxter packing his things and Fran looking miserable in that same old Chinese restaurant on New Year’s Eve. When she runs to Baxter’s apartment, we get that final glimmer of hope that we truly will get the happy romantic comedy ending we all crave, only to hear a gunshot from inside. It’s at this point that there really seems to be no happiness in the ending, until it’s revealed to be the final gag of Baxter opening a bottle of champagne. The two sit down and finally resume their unfinished round of gin rummy and the most closure we get is Baxter finally expressing his love to Fran, prompting her to leave the audience with the famous final line, “Shut up and deal,” as she smiles, looking the happiest she’s been in the whole movie.

I personally think that the ending is what could make someone love or really hate the film. Some may find it to be enough of a happy ending for our leading couple to justify the dark overtones throughout, but for others it may not be enough to wash the taste of sadness out of their mouths. As someone who still gets enjoyment out of the basic “happy ending,” no matter how short and unfulfilling it was closure-wise, it was still enough to make me feel satisfied. I was thinking that any of those scenes in the final minutes might be the last, and I wasn’t sure how sad it was going to end up, so when it finally came full circle to being happy, I felt satisfied. I think I would’ve loved this movie even if it didn’t end happily though, Billy Wilder’s writing and directing were fantastic and the performances all around from Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, Fred MacMurray, and all the supporting cast, with Jack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss being my favorite, were fantastic. The Apartment stands today as a still-functioning, still genre-defying romantic comedy that works because of Billy Wilder’s genius layout of the plot elements with a near perfect blend of drama, comedy, and romance, ending on a romantic high note to solidify its place in the canon of romantic comedies and film in general.

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Dylan Laviana

Dylan Laviana

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